- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

READING LEO STRAUSS: POLITICS, PHILOSOPHY, JUDAISM

By Steven B. Smith

University of Chicago Press, $32.50, 268 pages

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH PHELAN

A specter is haunting North America — the specter of Leo Strauss. His name is encountered everywhere these days from the New York Times and National Public Radio to Wikipedia entries and the blogosphere. Many of these pieces have suggested that Strauss’ work has directly affected United States foreign policy through the influence of neoconservatives connected with the Bush administration.

But, according to Yale professor Steven Smith, Strauss’ fundamental priority was not so much the fostering of a particular political movement, but the understanding of the fate of Western rationalism under modern conditions.

Who was Leo Strauss and why is there so much heat and confusion about his work?

Born into a German Jewish family in 1899, Strauss was educated before and after World War I, taking his doctorate in 1921. He fled Germany in the 1930s, first for England and then the United States.

He taught for 10 years at the New School for Social Research in New York City, and then moved to the University of Chicago where for the next two decades his teaching and writing established a quiet revolution in the study of political philosophy. He died an emeritus professor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md. in 1973.

Strauss was above all a reader of old books, ranging from his beloved Greeks such as Thucydides, Plato and Aristophanes, to the Judeo-Arabic writers of the Middle Ages, to early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes and Spinoza. In his seminars at the University of Chicago he would typically devote a whole semester to a close reading of a single text, say a Platonic dialogue.

As Mr. Smith observes, this approach to the study of classic texts which had become to some extent museum pieces in recent generations was itself a revolution in the way political philosophy was taught in mid-century America.

Moreover, Strauss’ way of reading these philosophers was so subtle and nuanced that his thought cannot be reduced to a system, doctrine or an “ism.” So innovative were his studies of these authors that they have led to a radical rethinking of the intellectual foundations of the modern West, and in so doing demonstrated the importance of continual self-examination within the liberal democratic tradition as it faces the challenges of the postmodern world.

In the proverbial distinction between the hedgehog and the fox, Strauss was a hedgehog whose expertise in topics philosophical, literary, political and historical appealed to a wide range of students from different beginning points and backgrounds. Thus one cannot speak of a legacy but rather of a number of competing legacies deriving from his lifework.

Yet if there is not one way to be a Straussian, Mr. Smith identifies a common set of problems which preoccupied the master and were handed down to his students. Three of the most important are the difference between the ancients and modern philosophers, the quarrel between philosophy and poetry and most importantly, the tension between reason and revelation.

The center of Strauss’ thought can be located at or near the apparently irreconcilable conflict between reason and revelation, a conflict which Strauss, following Spinoza, named the “theological-political problem” and which at one point he described as “the theme of my investigations.”

Mr. Smith has previously written two books on Spinoza, so it is only natural that he should organize his book on Strauss around this problem. He entitles one section “Jerusalem,” the focus of which is Strauss’ writings about the Jewish tradition, and another section “Athens,” which revolves around Strauss’ reflections on the differences between ancient and modern rationalism.

According to Mr. Smith, the theological political problem represents for Strauss the core or beating heart of the Western tradition. The conflict between biblical faith and Greek philosophy is characteristic of the West and for Strauss the secret of its vitality. The Bible and philosophy represent the two fundamentally different ways of life that ultimately defy all attempts at reconciliation. In the final analysis the individual in quest of truth and ultimate meaning can either be a philosopher or a theologian but he cannot be both.

Strauss came to this position in the wake of his discoveries in the late 1930s about the art of writing and therewith the art of reading. It had been known for millennia that great writers often hid or concealed their most profound thoughts from all but the most careful and persistent readers. The final thought of the author was not necessarily taken to be that most frequently and insistently expressed in the largest number of passages.

In general the author was assumed to be pious and patriotic at the beginning and end of his discourse while the truly individual and idiosyncratic ideas he had developed would most likely be carefully placed somewhere near the middle of the work.

In Strauss’ terms it was “only when he reached the core of his argument” that the author would “write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think.” But the point here is that in the century or so that followed the Enlightenment’s moving fully onto the stage of Western history, this “esotericism” of the great thinkers had all but been forgotten.

By the 19th century, with the “Rights of Man” firmly entrenched, amongst which were included the right to freedom of speech, assembly and religion, it was assumed that there were no good reasons for dissembling and prevaricating in public arguments, and this view was read back into the past. A kind of “amnesia” set in about what it means to study classic authors. Thus Strauss was wont to speak of “a forgotten kind of writing.”

This “esotericism” thesis has been perhaps the most controversial aspect of Strauss’ work and has led to some of the nastiest charges made against him and his followers as “elitists,” “conspirators” and anti-democrats. These allegations are perhaps to be expected in a democratic culture and for the most part can be dismissed.

But it is hard to leave things simply at that. In a culture such as ours the suggestion that deceit and lying are sometimes justified (which for all the great ethical philosophers they undoubtedly were under certain extremely necessitous conditions) is not something to be taken lightly. To say the least, where issues of honesty, integrity and probity are concerned, we live in a society where if given an inch many will feel fully entitled to take a mile.

In this connection it may be observed that the merits of Mr. Smith’s book are related precisely to his lack of “esoteric” intention. The author in fact brings the “hidden core” up front and center by prefacing each chapter with a truly memorable paragraph from Strauss’ writings, so memorable in fact that one suspects them to be the three or four “terse and lively sentences apt to arrest the attention of young readers who love to think.”

Mr. Smith provides his readers with user friendly chapters broken up into short two to three page sections in order that a clear view of Strauss’ main arguments be readily available.

Those familiar with other “Straussian” books will know that this is not always the case in this school. Thus there is no danger of Mr. Smith being accused of trying to put us on the kind of tortuous and Byzantine paths to be seen in Strauss’ own “How to Begin to Study ‘The Guide of the Perplexed’” and “Thoughts on Machiavelli.” Instead he has produced a lucid, reliable and balanced analysis of a thinker whose profound and far-reaching influence cannot be overestimated.

Joseph Phelan teaches philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He can be reached at [email protected]

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